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High-tech moguls jet into low-tech Idaho airport

SHARE High-tech moguls jet into low-tech Idaho airport

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — High technology and low technology converged this week in Hailey, Idaho, as Bill Gates and dozens of other media and technology moguls jetted into the town's tiny airport where the air traffic controllers use 10-year-old radios and rotary dial phones.

Allen & Co.'s 18th annual investment conference in nearby Sun Valley attracted the private Gulfstream and Falcon jets favored by the executives that attend the event.

"The most modern piece of technology in the air traffic control tower is the microwave oven," said James Ferguson, regional vice president of the NAPSCA, the national air traffic controllers' union, who said he wouldn't be comfortable landing there in bad weather.

All went smoothly under this week's sunny skies. Moguls including Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corp., Steve Case, chief executive of America Online Inc. and Warren Buffett, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. were among those whose jets touched down on the 6,900-foot-long runway.

Sumner Redstone, chief executive of Viacom Inc. touched down at Hailey in a Gulfstream IV, en route to the Allen conference.

"We only fly here during daylight," he said. "There are a lot of mountains around here."

The mile-high Hailey airport is set in a canyon in the shadows of the Sawtooth Mountains, 11 miles south of 9,000 foot-high Bald Mountain. The control tower hasn't been upgraded since it was built in 1989.

Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General of the Federal Aviation Administration and an outspoken critic of the agency, said it was good that the airport's busy week took place under clear skies.

"In high traffic periods like that, it's significantly more dangerous," said Schiavo, a licensed pilot, who said she's visited Hailey's airport.

Airport officials agree improvements are needed, some of which could be funded by a bill signed by President Clinton that provides almost $20 billion over the next three years to fund improvements in air traffic control systems across the country.

Officials at the airport said the technology currently in use doesn't pose a threat to passengers.

"I'm not going to deny that it's time to upgrade the tower, and we're going to," said Richard Baird, airport manager. "It's not dangerous just because it has older equipment."

The radios in the control tower are 10 years old, and the telephones have rotary dials. Air traffic controllers are diverted from their primary task each day by hundreds of requests from pilots for weather conditions. These queries are handled automatically at other airports, with devices called Automated Terrestrial Information Systems.

"The airport is absolutely safe," said FAA spokeswoman Holly Baker.

Hailey air traffic controllers aren't FAA employees, although the agency pays their salaries. They work for Serco Group PLC, a British company that contracts with the airport. Their salaries, set by the federal government, are more than 20 percent below federally employed air traffic controllers.

Baird said that the tower's construction was financed by the Federal Aviation Administration.